Wherever you go in Japan, you are sure to see a tanuki, or raccoon dog. In the city you will find little (or not so little) statues at every turn and if you stay up late enough in the county you might even get to see the real thing (Nyctereutes procyonoides).

Even though this animal actually exists, the tanuki is also popular character in Japanese folklore and legends. He is a magical, shapeshifting, trickster but cheerful and lovable none the less. He also plays music by drumming on his giant belly. Stylized ceramic statues of tanuki can be found peeking out at you from gardens and doorways and are supposed to bring you good luck and prosperity.

A tanuki statue usually has eight lucky attributes which are shown in this picture:

I find it very funny that they decided to go with the word "blob" instead of "ginormously oversized scrotum".

I have heard tanuki translated directly into raccoon time and time again and I know a few people that think they are the same as the North American raccoon. So, on a purely ecological note, I just need to set the record straight: the tanuki is not a raccoon and neither is it very closely related to a raccoon. It is about as related to a raccoon as it is to a walrus. They are in the Canidae family and are closely related to foxes, wolves, jackals and other dog-like creatures. An interesting taxonomic side note about tanuki is that they belong to a basal group of the subgroup Caninae in which there are only two extant species. The other species is the bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis) which lives in the African savannah. The rest of their basal buddies went extinct sometime before the end of the Pleistocene epoch.  

The fact that they look similar is an example of convergent evolution and a great opportunity for me to go on a tangent about ecological theory :)  Sometimes unrelated species develop similar traits completely independent of one another because they are living in a similar biome or occupy the same ecological niche. In the case of the raccoon and tanuki, they are both nocturnal animals that live in a forest environment. The black mask on their face reduces glare (like the black paint that football players use) and helps with their night vision. The striped coloration that they both exhibit helps them blend in with the long dark shadows that are cast from trees in a moonlit forest at night. Also, it has been speculated that the black markings on their faces help them to identify one another but I am not sure how much research has been done to support that theory.

If you will forgive me for my rant, here are some ridiculously cute tanuki puppies.  


Jesse said...

If you haven't seen Pom Poko, you should get it post-haste! One of the few Disney releases of a Studio Ghibli movie that I had to listen to the English dub, just to hear how they translated the testicular references.

Laura said...

Thanks JC! Sorry it took me forever to respond to this. We got our hands on Pom Poko and it was great. The kids had a really fun time watching it too, but Theo spent a mopey hour or two afterward lamenting the fact that he can't transform.